© translated by Anna Malanushenko

Pots and Gods

Pots aren't made by gods.
(a Russian proverb)

I groped for the hangar door and opened it slightly. It was quiet here, except for the noise of some unintelligible drafts. And it was completely dark. I did not know how to turn the lights on. I waited at the entrance for a while, then quickly stepped aside and sat down by a wall, feeling the cold of the metal panels in my back. 'I'll let my eyes adjust,' I thought, 'and then we'll see.' So long as I myself am invisible for anyone who might look. For some reason I was certain that my brother is here in the hangar. He said he had some serious business to do, but refused to bring me along. But I saw him this morning, he was walking towards the hangar with scissors in his hand. So I came along to see what is it that he's doing here. But if my brother didn't tell me about his business in the hangar, chances are, he doesn't want to see me here.

For as long as I remember myself there was nobody whose opinion mattered to me more than my brother's. Yan was nine years older than me and it seemed that he knew everything there was to know. When I needed an advice, I always went to Yan. Of course I had a deep respect for mom, and dad, and grandad, but... but a brother is a brother. When I learned that he died, it seemed to me for a moment that the entire ship will die, too... but that happened many years later, and I will try to tell the story in chronological order.

It seemed in the darkness that the hangar was bigger than I remembered. I knew the ship's plan by heart of course and remembered that the hangar is a cube, one hundred meters in all directions. And that it was completely empty, as it will be finished or filled after the End of the Journey. At some point they wanted to make a tennis court here, but they ended up doing it on the third dock instead. I closed my eyes, then opened them again. No difference. Not any brighter. The hangar seemed infinite. I closed my eyes again, when suddenly I felt a pressure of a distant wind on my cheek. Not as much a pressure even, but more of a clap. Something was moving in the darkness of the hangar. Something large, massive, and completely quiet. And, as I became increasingly certain, it was something completely inhuman. I pressed myself against the wall and could swear that the mass came very close, froze right in front of me as if examining me, then turned away and started to crawl back to the distant corner.

'Yan!' I shouted.

My voice got carried away into the darkness and was repeated three times by an echo above my head, higher and higher up. Nobody answered so I figured he wasn't here.

At this point it would have been smart to run away. To call an adult. Or at least to come back with a flashlight. Perhaps this is what any Earthling would do. But I'm not an Earthling, I was born and raised on this ship. This was my home, my world, and in it, I wasn't afraid of anything, except perhaps of the ire of Elder Qi. I never saw any beast scarier than a pig, as there were no other beasts on the ship. I never even saw a robot taller than myself. Although perhaps our large forklift robot got to be somewhere here, in the distant corner of the hangar.

I don't even remember how I felt, perhaps I did get scared. Or perhaps I thought that the forklift somehow came to life. Anyway, I did something really stupid. I got mad that some alien is strolling in our hangar, so I straightened up, took a few steps into the darkness, extended my hand, and said firmly, in the way one gives orders to robots: 'Stop!'

Wasn't this stupid? I sensed that the mass froze at the distant corner of the hangar, then rushed my way. This is the last thing I remembered.

* * *

Close one eye and look around. Almost no change, right? Now imagine that you have been missing a right eye since you were ten, and that you are seventeen now. Believe me, this is enough time to get used to it and not even notice it anymore. You walk around with a customary black eye patch, like a pirate from the old movies. Girls give you admiring stares and many guys envy you. It almost seems as if they'd give a lot to lose an eye and to walk around with an eye patch like yours. But you don't really feel too crippled. For one, you are good at tennis, and last year you got the second prize in the all-ship competition to prove it. And not even vile gossipers dared say that you were given the games away. Because everyone knows that you really are that good at tennis. But there are eight hundred healthy people on the ship, not counting the paralyzed old Lun, of course. So you hold the honorific first place at being The Disabled of the ship. And you are being guarded. Taken care of. You stand in the very first row on all ceremonies. You dine in the first shift in the canteen. But then, you have some minor restrictions...

In theory, everyone agrees that you are healthy as a boar, that your restrictions are this minor, but you have no idea how infuriating they are! First of all, you aren't allowed to work with electronics. Because you can mix up the wires and short-circuit something, right? Not right? Try and prove it, when the Instructions have it in black and white that people with weak vision aren't allowed to handle circuitry. Secondly, you aren't allowed to work at computer monitors. Why? Because you can weaken the vision in the remaining good eye. Now tell me, where can you work on the ship if not by the computers and not with electronics, which are both a must in every lab and in every manufacturing facility? The remaining two options are the hydroponics and the pigsty. It will all be set up with great care as to not harm your self-esteem. At seventeen years of age, you are already a deputy manager. That is to say, you are the second person on the ship when it comes to pigs, and as such, you are a member of the Council. Although the Council has fifty members and it's not like they really needed you there, but still, it's prestigious. While in essence, your job is simply to look after pigs. It is maddening. But you deal. Only occasionally, you express a protest. Like in that story with Livay.

To be honest, there is a lot in the Instructions which I don't understand. For example, why did we only take pigs, rice, and soy with us, and opted to synthesize the rest. I read about the wonderful beasts called chicken. It is entirely possible that they are inferior to pigs in many ways in terms of protein energetics or air circulation. I am not the one to judge, as I know that the ship was created by the best minds in the Great Chinese Empire. Also, I saw photographs of various fruits. It is, again, entirely possible that the synthetic flavors are identical to the real ones, but still, why didn't we bring some seeds along, if only to have a little more genetic variety on the ship? I heard that they can be stored for a long time. But this isn't what puzzles me most. If, once in a decade, a dwarf black piglet is born, what does it mean? Is this a mutation caused by our plasma engine? But that's nonsense, I know it, for I may be young but I am still a biologist. The habitable zone of the ship is securely shielded from both the engine and the space itself, and pretty much the only way to prove that they exist is by looking at the dedicated sensors. The radiation outside of the ship is extremely strong, to say the least. The reactor emits waves of plasma which enshroud the hull, and they are so powerful they can burn anything to ashes in an instant. No spacesuit can possibly save a human outside of the lock. But the plasma is controlled by the force field of the hull. And a field is a field, it cannot be 'not strong enough'. The fact that the ship is still intact is a conclusive proof that not a single quark can get through. Which is why in the living quarters we enjoy a perfectly safe level of radiation and the air which is perfectly free of toxic chemicals. The background radiation on Earth itself was much stronger, I know since I looked up the data. So how can a mutation occur? Let's be honest: the pigs which were brought upon our ship are not at all as purebreed as the Instructions say. A hybrid gene had probably sneaked in and keeps showing up occasionally. And the small black piglets are traditionally euthanized. But when one was born in my time at the pigsty, I let it live and nursed it in my own room. A week later someone saw me coming in with a bottle of soymilk and wrote an anonymous letter to Elder Qi.

The scandal was colossal. Even my family didn't stand to my defense, and even Yan told me to stop showing off. But I was persistent like a tank. I maintained that on Earth, not all animals were raised for food, that our ancestors kept some as companions, too. And that since the Instructions say nothing about the small black piglets, it also means that we aren't required to kill them, either. Therefore, the piglet shall live, or else I shall throw myself out of the lock. And let the logs of our ship commemorate the shameful story of the wronging of the poor cripple and of his little four-hoofed friend. This worked: Elder Qi didn't decide on the spot, and the Council took time to think. It took them a week, during which time I was locked in the cell along with the piglet. This was my first time there. The cell was only used once before me, by the infamous Mr. Su, the legendary ruffian and drunkard. You know, when you are locked up and have no news from the outside world, things do begin to look hopeless indeed. I was no longer certain that Elder Qi would listen to my reasoning. And to be honest I wasn't certain that I would throw myself out of the airlock if they killed the piglet, either. But in the end it was Yan who helped me. He found the records that visually impaired people on Earth were entitled to a guide dog, which was supposed to be near its owner at all times on a leash. This information was confirmed and I was allowed to keep the piglet.

Mom made him a silk harness. I trained the piglet and called him Livay. I even got away with doing so. When Elder Qi learned of that name, he called me into his captain's cabin. Where I opened my good eye wide to look more naive, held Livay lovingly to my chest, and stated that the most important things in my life are my family, my clan, and my ship, which is why the only suitable name I could think of was the name of our ship, 'Yan Livay'. Because we are the sons of the Great Nation, and our lives are dedicated to the Grand Goal, which is to reach the Northern Edge of the galaxy, find a suitable planet, land there and build the Great Planetary Colony, while maintaining the integrity of the oxygen space and expanding our borders... and so on, according to the ideological section of the Instructions, which we all knew by heart. It's just that mom once told me that she and dad called their firstborn Yan after the ship also, and that because of it, they got a special blessing from the Elder. Elder Qi remembered that, too, and he wasn't a fool. He got dark in the face, but he didn't openly object.

I wasn't even kicked out of the Council. But from now on, I could not count on any goodwill from Elder Qi, either. For instance, when I got fed up with grinding the vitamins for the pigs in a pestle by hand and requested an automatic mill, I got a refusal which was most vengeful. The stated reason was that I am not allowed to work with dangerous machinery as I am at risk of injuring myself. Has anyone, ever, in the entire seventy years that this ship existed, injured themselves with an automatic mill? It can't even break a finger! We'd be better off locking the hangar and forbidding all heavy equipment out there! Because the worst injury this ship had ever seen had happened in the hangar. In fact, it had happened to me. Because I did not know how to turn the lights on, and in the hangar, there was half a ton of some metal junk swinging about on a metal cable. And it had pointy bits sticking out everywhere. And it managed to hit me. So why don't we lock the hangar instead? But no, for some reason anybody could still come to the hangar. Even the paralyzed old Lun≈if she wished to be brought up there, of course.

* * *

Now it is time to tell how the ant was found. Yes, I found an ant. I went down to the farmost cargo hold to fetch the summer supplements, and the ant was lying there in the middle of the hallway. In principle nobody but me could have found it as nobody but me ever went there. But there is a certain irony in that it was me, as I am the one who is hopelessly vision impaired, am I not? Hah! I saw this black dot on the floor from at least five meters away. And walked by it without giving it much heed. It was a mere speck that must have been left behind by a cleaner. I might drop a few more myself on the way back, when carrying a bag full of supplements. So I walked right by it≈but Livay lingered. And I suddenly heard an oink from behind. I turned to find Livay frozen up in a classical pointing stance. His muscles tight, his leg raised, he looked like a real bird dog! It was me who taught him to point. Not at ants, of course. But this was how the ant was found.

It took me a while to understand what it was, because I never saw an ant, especially not a winged one. Of course, I never saw insects myself. But I would have recognized a butterfly, and a bee, but as for the ant... books don't spend too much time on them, and for some reason they rarely show up in movies. But I figured that this must be a dead insect and brought it back to the lab of the pigsty. And once I was free I went to the classroom to try and identify it on the internet. On our internal one, of course. Because how can we have a real internet if we don't have any connection with Earth ever since we started the journey? We only have what we brought along, as in, the world's full content at the time of the launch. Something that all of us could browse. Dad told me that for years, you needed a special permit to browse the internet, since it was indeed a full copy. It wasn't processed in any way, and was full of junk, lies, and pornography. But a few decades ago a special worker was assigned to clean it up, meticulously day after day, so that one day it would be ready for our descendants. The famous Mr. Su volunteered for the job, back when he was young and wasn't notorious for his scandalous speeches. It turned out too slow of a process, the Elder was unhappy. Until it turned out that Mr. Su doesn't clean up the database as much as savors what he was supposed to remove. He was fired, but a big portion has been cleaned already, and anyone who wants can browse it. So I did. I found a picture of an ant and confirmed that this was it. But how to explain its appearance? It is possible, of course, that somewhere in the far corner we have an anthill... anything is possible, but can I believe that in all these years none ever showed up? Another option is that the ant was dead to begin with, lying somewhere till a draft brought it out to a dark hallway of a distant cargo hold.

The Instructions don't say anything about ants, but logically speaking I should have reported an event like this to the Elder and to the Council. But what would they do then? They will, of course, take the ant to the medical lab to study, and I can't go in there. And Yan, whose technical lab is right next to mine, can't go to the medical lab either.

And I have a microscope in the pigsty, meant to study the cross-section of the fur to watch out for vitamin deficiencies. So I enjoyed the ant to my heart's content, then dialed Yan's communicator and asked him, rather enigmatically, to stop by after work. I must have overdid the enigmatic part, as Yan came right over. As a physicist, he had a lot more flexibility in his work hours. We spent a long time studying the ant. I suggested trying to clone it, provided any living tissue remained. Yan objected, saying that insects can turn life on a ship into a nightmare. But in general, he liked the idea. So before submitting a report to the Elder, Yan took the ant to his own lab to do X-Rays, thermography, and so on.

* * *

Late at night Yan came to my room. I instantly understood that something wasn't right, as Yan had a very perplexed face.

First of all, he showed me an X-Ray. Of course, we had no idea what's inside of an ant and what we should see in this image. We spent a lot more time studying the history of China than studying the biology of creatures that none of us will ever see. Perhaps school kids on Earth didn't study biology of extinct dinosaurs in great detail for much the same reasons.

Then he pulled out a bioimage. There was not a trace of living cells in the ant that Yan could find. I couldn't find any either. It was annoying of course, but what could we expect from a mummy such as this? But even then, I wasn't too surprised. I did not know what the cells of an insect should look like, as I only saw those of pigs. Perhaps the size of cells in living creatures is proportional to the size of their bodies? In this case of course they wouldn't be easy to see.

At last, Yan pulled out a thermal image of the body... to say its thermal structure was nonuniform would be an understatement. Its thermal image looked wild, my first thought was that Yan chose a crazy color scheme to enhance the mosaic structure in the image. I looked at it in stunned amazement and demanded that Yan explains what it means.

Yan's countenance didn't change as he started gravely listing his ideas, all of them totally crazy. But I know him well enough, and when he starts uttering like this, with such certainty and in such detail, it really means that he hasn't got a clue. That's a physicist for you. The most interesting hypothesis was, if I'm not wrong, about dew that accumulated on the mummy in the hallway, which now evaporates in such a non-uniform manner.

I listened to his gibberish in full, then poked a finger at the color scale at the bottom of the photo. Since when does the process of evaporation heat things up? And the temperature of the ant is above ambient, though by a small fraction of a degree. Yan nodded gravely and supplied that there is, in fact, one part of the body that's colder than the air: its wings. As I now recall, the wings were interesting in the optical photograph, too. They were rather pretty, dark blue, and completely opaque.

Overall, Yan said that he agrees with everything, but he has no other logical explanation. Other than that this is some form of life that's based on silicon, as opposed to carbon, like anything from Earth would be. But how could it get into the living quarters of the ship? We decided to tell everything to the Elder in the morning. Yan left, letting me keep the thermal photo. I looked at it for a while till I fell asleep.

* * *

I woke up in the morning, took one look at the image, and figured that we are both idiots. Yan especially so. Yes, I am not a physicist, but we both were born and grew up aboard 'Yan Livay', the first ship of the stellar expansion. There may have been more ships after ours, but I did not know how many. We are the sons of the Great Nation, and our fates are devoted to the Grand Goal: to reach the Northern Edge of the galaxy and to start the Great Planetary Colony. At the End of the Journey, we will land on a planet and build a colony. The reactor of our ship is based on plasma. It's not even a thermonuclear reactor, it's literally a small sun. It was built on Earth's orbit and will be ejected before we land. Because it's either a planet or a small sun, you can't have them both at once. As we won't have the reactor anymore, we will draw energy from solar cells which we will spread far around the perimeter of the ship. This is a brief summary of the Instructions, but every child on the ship knows the details by heart. We may not know what an ant looks like, but we all know very well how to land, how to spread out the solar cells, and how to build a dome. Now try and imagine a situation when two young settlers, a swine biologist and a physicist, spend an entire evening looking at a photograph of an object which has internal temperature above the ambient, and the wing temperature below the ambient...

I called Yan and told him all this, without letting him interrupt me. I told him that this object isn't an ant from Earth, but it isn't an alien silicone form of life either. It is simply a robot built to resemble an ant. Because its wings are its solar cells, and if it were a living organism, this way to draw energy would warrant a completely different lifestyle, and very likely a completely different body. There is no chance that its body will be identical to the shape of an Earth ant, which had evolved to consume and digest organic matter... That he should take my word as a biologist that this is a robot, created by a sentient designer who borrowed the idea and the shape from the living nature.

Yan tried to say something else, but I interrupted him again. As I was phrasing all this for him, I got another idea. Namely that we should be extremely careful with this creature, for according to the image, it isn't dead in the slightest. Moreover, it is feasting on energy that it was deprived of in the dark hallway, where the light wasn't turned on in months.

This is when Yan finally managed to interrupt me and told me that this night, the ant had escaped the lab. By eating through a tightly closed glass jar. Made of two millimeters of glass.

After this we of course went to Elder Qi, with our confessions and the images. The Council had an emergency meeting to decide what to do next. Because the only two sections in the Instructions that were remotely relevant were about an external military aggression and an acute epidemic. Which one should we choose? In the end, the ship was placed in a military quarantine, with all bulkheads tightly sealed and with special permissions required to move around. Search crews were formed to find the ant. But how can you possibly find it now?

* * *

On the following day the Council had reconvened. Without Yan, of course, but I was present as a member. There was more arguing, but since there was no new input, people were mostly deciding how to punish Yan and myself for a violation of the Instructions and for failing to make a prompt report. The conversation was slowly escalating. Mrs. Zhan stood up and started saying things like that Yan and myself are the problem kids, and that we are a shame to our mom and dad. She didn't mention our grandfather as he was a Council member himself and was sitting right here. Then Mrs. Zhan started remembering all our sins, how Yan built his pendulum in the hangar which cost me my eye, and how I kept Livay, and how I have the guts to bring a swine to the Council meetings. Only the chosen members of the ship's crew are allowed on these meetings, and I show up with a swine...

Well, what did you expect from an old ideology teacher? I sat and listened, patting my official guide in the head. But everyone else was wound up, that with an enemy spy robot at loose around us and with a complete lack of ideas on what to do next. Mrs. Zhan got all wound up herself and reached a culmination point: she started saying how Yan and I are the shame of our ship and that we have all chances to end up like the ideologically corrupt Mr. Su. Who, as we all know, was thrown out of the lock eight years ago, per the orders of the Elder and the Council...

This is when an orb of light grew soundlessly above our heads, pulsing with lightnings. It exploded with a loud bang. And a leaflet made of rice paper fell out of it, with a text stamped in gold letters:

'The esteemed sons of the Great Nation, who devoted your lives to the Grand Goal of reaching the Southern Edge of the galaxy! Your Motherland is proud of you! We remember your heroism, and the heroism of your fathers, who selflessly embarked in the eternal journey! It is our great pleasure to let you know that the achievements of your Motherland are great, and the technological advance is rapid. Today, we at last managed to teleport objects aboard your ship. The first object was an automatic nanorobot in the shape of an ant which allowed us to improve our technology. Because of this, today we can finally send you this letter. The scientists of our Motherland work tirelessly to be able to send you news, medicine, and supplements. We hope that in the future, we will be able to establish a full two-sided contact with you. With regards, the government of China.'

As soon as the Elder stopped reading, everyone stood up and gave a round of applause. We turned on the Hymn and sang it three times.

As for me, I did not like this letter. And I wasn't the only one. Because then, my grandad stood up, kept silent for a moment finding the right words, and said things with which I couldn't agree more.

He said that the Motherland might be dissatisfied with our defenses if we will blindly believe every word of this message. Because the Instructions say nothing about the Motherland contacting us in the future. So these could be... grandad faltered, trying to come up with the right words... could be persons who aren't appointed by the Motherland and who might have an ill intent.

The Council grew loud, but grandad raised his hand and continued that for example it is unclear how can the Motherland be proud of her faithful sons while forgetting that said faithful sons' journey isn't to the Southern, but to the Northern Edge of the galaxy.

The Council members were silent for a while, and I gave my grandad a mental thumbs up. I, too, was bothered by this part of the letter. Grandad finished by suggesting that we stay alert, don't touch the leaflet anymore, and send it to the lab for an expertise to try and hopefully find some fingerprints which may at least belong to our fellow Earth people.

I thought that was a really good idea. And so it was decided. Come evening, a fingerprint was indeed found. It was magnified and printed and hung on a board in the canteen along with the magnified copy of the letter.

It only hung out in the open for an hour when I was called for another emergency meeting of the Council. Mr. Yuan, who worked in ship's security for many years, was old and feeble, he rarely left his room, and his memory was failing him. But Mr. Yuan maintained that he could recognize this fingerprint immediately and without any doubts, as this is the fingerprint of the notorious Mr. Su. Unfortunately we were unable to confirm this as no copies of Mr. Su's fingerprints remained on the ship. Why would someone want to keep a fingerprint of a ruffian and a traitor, who was stripped off his clothes and pushed out of the ship's lock?

* * *

The next letter arrived in two months, when our guard was considerably relaxed and the martial law was lifted. It appeared in the same manner, during the meeting of the Council. It was immediately sent to the lab, but there were no fingerprints to be found.

This letter was a lot longer than the first one it was a large stack of paper. It started with greeting the valliant conquerors of the Northern Edge of the galaxy, showing that they noticed the mistake. It continued by passing regards to a lengthy list of the first crew members who boarded seventy years ago from their relatives back on Earth. As in, it gave a complete list of the first crew, of whom only seven people, including my grandad and the paralyzed old Lun, lived to date. In particular, the sons of the Motherland were greeted by Mr. Cun, whose job was listed as a 'null-mail printer'. It was emphasized that the father of Mr. Cun was a twin brother of Mr. Su. And this was true. The esteemed father of Mr. Su had a twin brother who remained on Earth. Their separation in the name of the Motherland was one of the most touching legends of our ship. That is, until his son covered their family name with shame by misconduct and by saying improper words about the Council and the Elder. The manifesto was concluded by the promise to establish a two-way connection in the near future.

If anyone doubted that this is indeed the Motherland talking to us, they had no more doubts now. Nobody could know all these details except for people of the Motherland. The manifesto was again publicly displayed in the canteen, a holiday was declared, we sang the Hymn three times at dinner, and everyone got a soy chocolate cake.

* * *

As for me, I went to talk to Yan in the evening to hear how he likes all of this. It turned out that Yan doesn't like this at all.

First of all, he was at loss as to why this magical communication is so infrequent, given that they already have the technology. What prevents them from doing it regularly? But he admitted that the principle behind it is completely unheard of and he cannot fathom how teleportation to such distances could work at all.

Secondly, he was surprised that in such a technologically advanced epoch, they were sending us letters on ancient rice paper. Even at the time of our launch, it was very difficult to find already. Is retro style suddenly in fashion?

Lastly, he was concerned by how promptly the Motherland responds to everything that happens on the ship. If they aren't eavesdropping, how come they fixed their error so promptly, and why did they give us such a careful explanation of the fingerprint of Mr. Su on the letter? But if they are eavesdropping, why don't they simply say so? What if we, too, want to line up in the Red Dock, wave our hands, and pass our greetings to the Motherland and to our relatives?

At which point I interrupted him and said that even twins themselves have different fingerprints, and their sons doubly so. He can have my word of a biologist.

Yan was silent for a while, and then stated that in the last seven years, the ship saw a suspicious number of events which cannot fit into any sane scheme. Even the physics of the ship isn't right at all.

I was surprised since the readings from sensors were open to all in the control hall, and they were all within the norms specified in the Instructions. To which Yan muttered a phrase which I remembered very well: 'It is easy to tamper with electronics. But it is impossible to tamper with a pendulum.' I had bad memories associated with pendulums, so I didn't clarify. Which turned out to be a big mistake.

* * *

I retired to my room for the night, and Yan said he'll head to the lab and work a night shift. We both left his room, and I went towards my own room, while Yan for some reason headed towards the hangar.

I was falling asleep when my communicator rang. Yan was asking if I have any estimate of the time at which I entered the hangar on the day of that unfortunate event? Because back then he of course could no longer think of any calculations, but that now, he would like to clarify something.

I remembered it very well: it was right after the Hymn at dinner.

Yan pondered on this and replied that he started his pendulum in the morning, five minutes before the school started. Which confirms his worst suspicicions. And that now he does not like this story with the pendulum at all.

I got offended. It sounded as if all these years he was content to have returned to the hangar and find his younger brother unconscious on the floor missing an eye. I did not realize that what he said he didn't like was the time interval itself. I did not even know that his experiment went on. I used to think that Yan pushed the pendulum to a swing, calculated who knows what and left, as the pendulum kept swinging.

I asked Yan, what was it that happened to our gravity?

He was surprised and asked, what gravity has to do with anything?

I had to remind him that he built that pendulum shortly after the weird gravitational jerks which we all noticed.

Yan replied, rather irritatedly, that the ship's gravity is just fine, and that if I think a pendulum could measure its tiny fluctuations then I simply did not study well in school.

Which is when I got angry and demanded that he explains himself.

Yan replied that this isn't a conversation to have over the communicator and that he'll tell me everything tomorrow, after double-checking everything one more time.

We said our goodbyes. And since then, nobody saw him ever again.

* * *

Yan disappeared without any trace. We searched for him for two weeks, and checked every single corner of the ship. I took his shirt and tried to teach Livay to detect his smell. But the piglet didn't seem to get the idea; he poked around agitatedly in Yan's room and in his lab, snorted, ran about the canteen and the hallways and squealed, and at last I was ordered to stop the commotion.

I was beginning to realize that not all animals can detect by smell, and that perhaps Earth dogs are the only ones that can. As for Livay, he was only a piglet, albeit a smart one. But just in case, I made him try one last time in the abandoned lower docks.

Livay jogged about, oinking quietly. At times it seemed to me that he behaved like a dog which found the trail. At other times that he is simply enjoying a walk on the uninhabited docks of the ship.

Suddenly Livay froze, then ran to the wall, looking anxious. I looked around. The hallway was completely empty. Livay looked at me, got to his hind legs, and started poking at the wall panels with his snout.

I walked to him and pulled off a square panel. Yan could not have fit here, the narrow space under the panels hosted cables and some sensors which collected various information around the ship.

In the dim light of the hallway I saw the metal post which supported a motion sensor. Or was it a vibration sensor? Yan was the one who would know. The sensor was old and covered with dust.

Livay oinked anxiously.

I pulled out a flashlight. I always kept one in my pocket in the last seven years. I felt safer this way.

I gave the post and the sensor some light and froze, dumbfounded. The detector was covered with winged ants. They sat unmoving, as if in a meditation, but under the light they started to stir.

I did not wait to see what would happen next, I simply grabbed Livay and ran away. Only when I was one dock above I pulled out the communicator, called Elder Qi, and in a rather confused fashion told him about the ants.

Elder Qi remained calm. He responded that the Motherland knows best how, and, most importantly, why to check our sensors. But he did call the security crew.

When I brought them to the spot, the ants were gone. Completely.

The security people shrugged and said that I could have been mistaken. I got enraged, called Elder Qi again and said that if our Motherland cares about us so much, why does she take such a great care to hide from us also?

Elder Qi replied that he understands how hard it is for me to go through the death of my brother. But he asked me to remain composed and to not allow myself to speak ill of the Motherland.

Frankly I don't remember what I said next. It's just before that I still had hope that my brother simply got lost, that we will find him. I realized that a man cannot survive without food and water for two weeks. I realized that if his communicator does not respond that it must have been destroyed. But this is the first time the Elder said the word 'death'. And I got unhinged. I probably said too many things, all of them too unpleasant. About the Elder, about the Council, the Instruction, and even about the Motherland. They were probably right to put me in jail.

* * *

I stayed in jail for a month. In the mornings and in the evenings the speakers came to life to play the Hymn. No news was ever broadcast. So it started to seem that the ship died out, that the only things remaining were me and the robot bringing my meals. They did not let me take Livay, so I was bored to death and spent hours walking around the cell. This is how I found the blasphemous verses of Mr. Su, which were scratched in by a needle in such a way that nobody would ever notice them, except for someone who would stare at the wall for hours. Mr. Su lashed out at the Elder, at the Council, and even at the expedition itself. He wrote that the expedition was only needed to politicians who can then brag that the sons of the Chinese People have reached the edge of the galaxy. That this isn't worth the resources spent and the lives wasted. In the farthest corner of the cell, Mr. Su rewrote the ideological section of the Instructions in curses, so awfully that it pained me to read it. I'm not one of the old folks who stand up when the Instructions are mentioned, but still, why drag the sacred writing through the mire? It's like pouring mud at your very self.

Then they released me and made me say a public apology for the words I said to the Elder. I apologized publicly, explaining that I was beside myself with the loss of my brother and cannot even recall my own words.

Nothing of importance had happened while I was in jail. The letters from the Motherland were getting more frequent, there were seven of them already. They spoke of how good life is over there, and said that our country lives in peace with the neighbours. There was nothing alarming about it, but the tone of the letters was becoming progressively more off of the tone in which the Instructions were written. My grandad put it very well once. At one of the meetings of the Council, he stood up and said that he is beginning to doubt the firmness of the national idea in modern China. Elder Qi stopped him rather roughly, but if you ask me, one cannot put it any better than that.

At last, the first box with the medications arrived. It was the medicine for the old Mrs. Lun who was at the end of her life. The note on the box said that this is specifically to help her. The medicine proved to be miraculous: Mrs. Lun was so much better that doctors could not believe their own eyes. They even started allowing a possibility of her paralysis to ease...

I was very happy for old Mrs. Lun, of course, that she was feeling better. But I did not understand why they had to kill my brother at the same time. What secret did he discover?

* * *

Three months have passed. I didn't like everything that was going on on the ship. Even less did I like what the letters from the Motherland were saying. I felt that they were false all over. They changed all the time. Nowadays, there wasn't even a trace that remained of the pathos of the very first letter. For example it was discreetly fed up to us that the Great Chinese Empire is no more. At first they said that the Great Chinese Empire had spread over the entire world. Eventually the letters stopped calling it Great. The word 'Empire' was gone next. And at last, they stopped saying the word 'Chinese'.

I went to talk to grandad. He didn't like it either. He also felt that they were playing games with us. We talked a lot about everything until the lights went off. I even told him of the inscriptions of Mr. Su on the wall of the cell.

Grandad frowned and said that they did the right thing by throwing him out into space. Because if it were true that we were uselessly condemned to death and that our deed was only useful for politicians, then the grandad would jump out to space on his own volition.

I returned back to my room afterwards feeling uneasy. I lied down thinking about my brother. Again and again, I was puzzling over what it was that he found that night. Livay couldn't sleep either. He loitered about the room, oinking ruefully. He was always very good at feeling my mood. At last, Livay sat down and scratched his ear, just like a dog. And started bobbing his head thoughtfully, back and forth, back and forth... and I suddenly thought that I know awfully little about pendulums.

Then I stood up, got dressed, grabbed Livay, and went to the classroom. And started reading everything that contained the word 'pendulum'. I opened up articles, skimmed over them, closed them, and moved on. I felt that the answer was close, and that I am about to find it. And I did≈in a textbook on basic physics. And I suddenly knew what experiment Yan did back then, all that was left was to repeat it. But it turned out that repeating it wasn't necessary, after all.

* * *

I turned on the light, entered the hangar, and walked down the rough surface of the flooring. Walked up to the center and looked around. If Yan wanted to assemble a heavy pendulum on a long cable, the hangar was an ideal location: there wasn't enough empty space anywhere else in the ship. I looked up at the framing by the ceiling. How did he manage to get all the way up and attach the cable? Would I be able to do it? I looked around in the corners: where did he find enough junk for a ton and a half of a weight? And why? Wouldn't it be easier to just use the forklift robot in that corner over there for a weight? That's how I would have done it. Moved it to the center of the room, and... and what? How does one go about lifting it up, attaching it to the cable, and making it swing? No, it can't be. One would need a second forklift to do that. And we only have one, there is no need for two in the ship. So Yan assembled the weight bit by bit, putting together various metal junk, tying it up with a wire. Then he pulled the weight all the way to the wall... but how? Definitely with the forklift.

I walked up to the robot and gave it a quick once-over. It was a huge cart with powerful manipulators and a rather simple brain. A narrow platform on small sturdy wheels, three wheels on each side. With as low of a clearance as possible, to carry heavy load down the low hallways. It could load the weight to its platform and start rolling. I poked at the flooring with my boot, then squatted and touched the heavy dusty wheels. No, this robot won't be able to pull a ton and a half behind it. It would, however, be able to load it up and roll away. But to pull? No way. Its wheels are too small, and the flooring is too rough. After a few minutes of loud skidding, the engine would make enough noise for adults to hear it and to come over. And to give Yan a marvelous scolding to remember...

And I suddenly got it. Yan had assembled the pendulum wound up already. I saw it now. Yan attached the cable in the center of the ceiling, and tied its other end to the wall of the hangar. Then he loaded it up with the bits of metal, one after another. Until the pendulum was ready. All that remained was to cut the rope that kept it by the wall. And just like that, the pendulum got loose, it was flying from the wall to the center of the hall, heavily and noiselessly. And further on to the opposite wall. And back. And again. For many hours, because we are talking of a ton and a half...

I only had to figure out the starting point of the pendulum. I looked around and immediately noticed the bit of a thick cord tied at the distant wall. I looked at the door of the hangar, and then at the wall with the cord again.

In essence, it was all clear already. The pendulum had started over there, and I crashed into it by the door. How could it end up by the door if it was swinging in a completely different plane? It means that the plane of oscillations of the pendulum was rotating. But if one were to believe the ship's sensors, this couldn't have happened. The pendulum swings in the same, fixed plane, always. If you swing it left to right, it will never be swinging forward and backward, no matter what you do with it. Anything else could turn about. For example, the ship itself.

But the ship wasn't rotating! The screens with the views from the sides of the ship had always shown us the same stars! The screens cannot lie. Or can they? Didn't Yan say that any detector can be fooled, and that the pendulum is the only thing that can't? I remembered the cluster of the robotic ants covering the sensor, I saw it myself...

All that was left was to make a more precise calculation. I went back to the hangar door and tried to remember that day. How did it all happen? I lingered in the doorway... walked to the side and sat down by the wall... remained seated for a while, then stood up and took a few steps into the darkness, stretched out my hand... Stop!

My heart skipped a beat and I felt a pang of pain in my right eye socket. I looked down at where I was and took a measuring tape out of the pocket.

To be honest, I already had an idea of what number I would get. What I didn't understand was how. And, more importantly, why? Why the hell? Who's lying here, and to whom?

I returned to the empty classroom and sat in front of a computer. I substituted values into the equation, and a minute later had the angular velocity with which our ship rotated. Even though it didn't rotate according to our instruments. Now I only had to estimate where it was. I made this estimate. Perhaps an Earthling would theorize that some villains imprisoned us and keep us on a planet with the same gravity that Earth has... Except I wasn't an Earthling, I was born and raised on this ship. It was my home, my world, and I wasn't afraid of anything here, not even of the ire of Elder Qi. So I made an assumption that we were on Earth... I gently touched the sensor panel and brought up Earth's globe. I could be wrong a million times, I could have missed many factors, there could have been so many explanations. There were so many things on Earth at this geographical latitude. But I was a hundred percent certain that we were in Northern China.

* * *

When I went down to the lock, Livay started anxiously waving his snout. He wriggled out of my hands onto the floor and started sniffing at the door of the lock, oinking happily. I had no more doubts. I was dead certain.

I initiated the preparation process, picked up Livay, and waited for the indicator light to turn on. The interior door slid sideways, and I entered the chamber of the lock. A warning message popped up. I pressed the button: yes I am certain I want to do this. The door closed behind me smoothly, blocking the escape. Though at this point, I could still turn back. But I didn't turn back. I froze for a second, bit my lip till I could taste the blood, and touched the button. The exterior door jerked into motion. And I heard the sound which I was afraid of the most: the increasingly loud hissing of the air coming out of the lock...

My heart stopped and my entire life flashed before my eyes. I suddenly realized that I was wrong. That I became too conceited. That I thought too much of myself. And was wrong, just like Yan was wrong before me. Just like the pendulum was wrong, for its own cold reasons which were beyond the human mind. And I will pay for this mistake with my own life, by dying instantly in the fiery plasma, and they will search for me in the ship for a long time, just like they searched for Yan...

But the hissing stopped as the pressure evened out a bit. I got embarrassed for the moment of fear and panic. The sunlight hit me in the face, and I saw the endless steppe, and I smelled the incredible cacophony of smells. Livay chirped happily and started wriggling out of my hands, but I only pressed him harder to my chest.

The steppe started right in front of the hatch and stretched till the very horizon. It was quiet, and cricket chirred, just like they did in the movies. In the distance, I saw two gigantic domes. They were ugly, and burnt, and molten. They looked like pots turned upside down, burnt on all sides by the unknown powers. I realized that they were ships, just like ours.

In between the ships stood a tall pagoda made of glass and metal. And above it, there was the endless and unbelievably blue sky. It was impossibly endless. Three-dimensionally endless. A sky could only look like this to someone who never saw anything bigger than a hangar in his entire life. I would give a lot to be able to see it with both eyes.

* * *

I felt dizzy. It was time to turn back. I turned around and pressed the button, belatedly realizing what would happen. And indeed, the lock did not work in the other direction. It either wasn't built to, or else it was broken. So I pulled out my communicator, instantly worried that it might not work in here. But it did, it still worked inside the lock!

I called Elder Qi. When he finally picked up the call, his voice was very sleepy. But when I told him that I'm standing in the open lock, he woke up at once. To be honest I didn't expect him to believe me. I didn't like Elder Qi, he didn't like me, and we both knew this. But he was a smart man. And he knew physics very well. As he was walking down to the lock I told him about the pendulum. And as I started to describe the steppe he was already here, on the other side of the door. He looked at the screen and ascertained that it was indeed open to the outside and that someone was indeed standing in it. Perhaps he didn't believe me at first. I knocked forcefully at the metalloceramic door and could barely hear the answering knock of the Elder.

'So we didn't go anywhere...' said the Elder gloomily thorugh the communicator. 'Why was it needed then?'

'I don't know,' I said. 'Perhaps it was a scientific experiment. Or perhaps we were shown in a TV series seventy years long.'

The Elder said that he's going to press the button on his side. But nothing happened. It was clear that the lock won't open while there is someone in the chamber, as it was only meant to work in one direction. The Elder ordered me to leave the chamber and step outside. I took the silk harness from Livay and put it on the floor, to give the Elder another proof that I was calling from here. Then I held the piglet to my chest tightly and jumped down into the grass. The hatch closed immediately and a second later the inner door opened up before the Elder. My communicator didn't work here anymore. I waited for the Elder to come out, but he didn't. And I realized that he won't come out, as the lock only works one way and there is no turning back. He at least got to make an announcement before the Council.

I turned around and walked to the pagoda. Livay finally got free and with a loud squeal started running around in circles. As for me, I was walking down staring at the molten walls of the gigantic pots. What forces could burn them like this? Perhaps there was a nuclear war, which we were hiding from in the barrels of steel, being lied to that we were flying to the edge of the galaxy? But I suddenly realized with great relief: we did fly! We did fly somewhere for real!

* * *

As I approached the pagoda and saw smiling Yan running out to greet me, I wasn't surprised. We hugged and Yan took me inside. We were sitting on the patio open to all winds and drank tea. The real tea turned out to be bitter and untasty, not at all like the soy tea we had on the ship. But I drank it nonetheless, watching a completely happy Livay running around the steppe. Yan did the talking. He spoke slowly and steadily, as if he was giving a speech that he was preparing for three months.

'I waited for you to realize this and to come out before all others. I wanted to have you brought out, but there was no way to do it. I couldn't even send you a message, I am sorry.'

'But tell me, did we fly?' I asked.

'We did,' Yan smiled, 'but we were brought back from half way. We have been standing here for seven years. Do you remember these weird gravitational jerks? All ship sensors are now being controlled.'

'Why are they hiding it from us?'

'It is called a psychological quarantine. A special program that takes fifteen to twenty years. At first they studied us. Now they write us letters. Then we will talk. After that, there will be an imitation of transportation to Earth and back. And only then they will tell us that we are on Earth.

'Why?' I said. 'Just, why?'

'Believe me brother that this is important. Neither of us will be allowed aboard anymore for we can mess up the program. In a few years, once we get used to being here, we will be allowed to talk to our family.

'How will we explain where we are?' I was surprised.

'An accident while adjusting the teleportation scheme. It doesn't matter.'

'I don't understand why we need this lie.'

'This isn't a lie,' Yan smiled bitterly. 'This is a gradual truth. Don't you understand? The ship is full of people who have been taught all their life that they are heroes and that they are bringing glory to their motherland. They were ready to give their own lifes for this. Many of them won't be able to bear the truth.'

'Just what might this truth be?' I asked.

'The truth is that our flight was unnecessary. Fifty years ago Finland established a colony on the Northern Edge of the galaxy. Do you still want to go there?'

'I do.'

'Not a problem. It will take five minutes. Except we need to ask for an escort, as we aren't fully capable citizens just yet.'

I was silent. I didn't want to go to the Northern Edge like this.

'Also,' said Yan, 'there isn't such a thing as the Great Chinese Empire any longer. There is only people of Earth. While we on the ship lived according to the Instructions for decades, life on Earth took its course. It all changed. And we,' Yan nodded at the gigantic ships, 'turned into relics from the old tin cans.'

'I don't get it. If the ship crew are strong people willing to give their life fighting, why can't they bear the news that they are on Earth?'

'Because, and listen to me carefully, brother,' said Yan, 'for this is something very important. When someone gives up their life fighting, they give up their future. As for our ship, it will have to give up its past. You and I have it easy, we are young and don't have a lot of a past. As for our grandfather, he has a long past, he has all his life. Everything he lived for. If we take it away from him, will he be able to go through this and remain sane? Will he be unhappy for the rest of his life?'

'I don't know,' I said, 'but on the ship, I was mostly unhappy because of the lie. I felt it. And grandad feels it too.'

'It runs in our family,' Yan smiled, 'which is why we are both here. Maybe grandad will decide to throw himself into space too, who knows? But will he be able to adjust to how everything is here? You will adjust. I'm learning, and I will help you, too. I'm now a consultant in rehab. And our head is Mr. Su. He is very well accustomed to being here by now.'

'Ah, I see,' I nodded, 'it all makes more sense now.'

'Look to your left,' Yan continued, 'to the conqueror of the Southern Edge of the galaxy. It has been empty for thirty years. They were told as soon as they were brought back. Nothing good came out of it, believe me. Now look to your right. This is the conqueror of the Eastern Edge. They had an accident, they fought death for fifty years, they are struggling with terrible diseases, and children are no longer being born. When we found them, only two dozen old men remained in the ship. We took their elder out and showed him the new world very carefully. The best psychologists worked with him. He was smart and got it all quickly. And then, he said that life in this world is unbearable for him and that he requests for the crew to be left alone to finish their life in their home and in their faith. He returned to the ship quietly and told his crew that he spent this time in a coma in the ruins of the lower docks. They believed, as this wasn't something unheard of for them. We don't know what's going on there now, for he requested that we stop the monitoring.'

I was silent for a long time trying to digest what I just heard.

'Is it difficult for a start?' Yan smiled.

'It's okay,' I nodded uncertaintly.

'But you have to agree that not everyone from our ship will be able to accept what I just told you.'

'Not everyone,' I agreed. 'But...'

'And this is only the first half of the truth. There is the second half.'

'Go on,' I nodded sullenly.

'Are you ready? Then listen. This is a very kind world. And you will see it for yourself. This is a very simple, very comfortable, and a very useful world. But it lives according to its own rules, like a pendulum, and you can't get on the way. I apologize for the analogy. By the way, later today you will be able to see the world with two eyes again. The medicine here is very advanced.'

'Thank you for that,' I nodded.

'But this isn't the world for us just yet. We are barbarians here. Too many things have happened in the last seventy years. Imagine that a caveman appeared in our ship. Let him be a very good man. But a caveman all the same. He'll soil in the hallways, make fire in his room, and will try to kill and eat his enemy. Not because he is bad but simply because he doesn't know any better. And he doesn't even think that eating the enemy is something bad. You and I are just these cavemen here. We don't have any command of the technologies, we aren't interesting to anyone, and we are simply dangerous. At the moment we are basically two pieces of thinking meat who were born yesterday and will die tomorrow. A mind grew up on its own in our heads and remains there in a complete isolation. It is difficult to explain. Many things will appear unthinkable to you and you will have to get used to a lot. Tell me, are you ready to use toilet over an email?'

'What?!' I started.

'I'm kidding. But there is a grain of truth in this joke. Getting accustomed to this world will be very very difficult. It is a completely different world, believe me. You and I only have Identity at the moment, and we don't even have a concept for Virtuality and Globality just yet.'

'What is it?' I asked.

'I've been trying to understand it myself for the last three months, as I need to start building it and get a license,' chuckled Yan. 'You can't get it all at once, as our heads simply have no space to fit Virtuality and Globality. I can't explain it as there are no proper words in our language.'

'Humor me and try.'

'A competitive constructor of personal universes. A permitting resource of the unified sentient soul. Does it make sense?'

'It does,' I nodded roughly. 'Well, so far so good. I like it. But I have two questions, brother. The first question is, can I really believe you, brother? What of all you just told me is a truth?'

'Everything is,' Yan was serious, 'have I ever lied to you?'

'In which case,' I smacked the air with my palm, 'tell me, brother, why do you need to lie to our people?'

'I just explained this to you,' Yan said softly. 'If you can't get it yet, then please just take my word for the time being. We have to. I didn't believe it at first either, and I didn't understand why it was necessary.'

'People should know the truth,' I said firmly.

'Not always, and not all at once,' Yan retorted.

'Always and at once,' I snapped. 'People aren't pigs. You can't keep them in the pigsty for years, feeding them concentrated bullshit. Do you remember yourself living there? Do you? You disliked these lies oh so much! How come that you turned into a mere cog in their machine?'

'Don't shout, listen...'

'Brother, you have been brainwashed! I don't know who these people are here, but I do see that you are on their side now! The Great Ideals of the Chinese People are nothing to you now! They taught you all their lies! How come you're saying 'us' about them, and 'they' about us on the ship?!'

'Brother, don't be hysterical and don't start all this high-flown language,' Yan winced, 'don't be a barbarian. Don't rush to conclusions. Look around. Think. Consider this. You will understand it all yourself. Right now this is an argument of blindness and sight...' Yan stopped. 'Sorry...'

'I don't want to understand any of this, brother,' I shouted, 'I can't tolerate lies!'

'This isn't a lie, this is a gradual truth. A mercy for those whose life took the wrong turn and is in a dead end.'

'You can't build mercy upon the body of lies,' I said firmly. 'How could you, brother? How could you?!'

Suddenly Yan froze and pressed a pinky to his ear. His face darkened. He looked at me slowly:

'What did you tell Elder Qi?'

'Everything. I called him from the lock with my communicator.'

'From the lock with a communicator...' said Yan dejectedly. 'From the lock with a communicator. We couldn't foresee this...'

'Aren't you keeping an eye on the ship? Aren't you eavesdropping the communicators? With all your ants and teleportation?'

'We are,' Yan replied dryly, 'but nowhere nearly as frequent as you think.'

'Did something happen?' I smiled triumphantly. 'Did Elder Qi tell the crew the truth?'

'No,' Yan said very quietly. 'Elder Qi hung humself. On the silk harness.'

December 2003, Moscow
© Leonid Kaganov

© translated by Anna Malanushenko

Translated from: https://lleo.me/arhive/fan2003/g_bogi.shtml

 


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